Photo - Earl Carter
Here’s a good thing – a play with important messages, exploring contemporary themes that makes a withering critique of undesirable values – all without bashing audiences over the head with worthiness or heavily slanted moralizing. ‘Refreshing’ is an over-used description but it does fit The Ugly One perfectly. The play is both funny and witty while making sharp, salient points about society’s preoccupation with appearances without ever dropping its entertainment factor. As amusement, it’s excellent, as social criticism, it’s excellent.
Translated from German, the dialogue in The Ugly One occasionally has a slight formality which works well in its bizarre (but not that bizarre) world; one example is the boss Schleffer announcing that he’s ‘peeling fruit’ rather than ‘peeling an apple’. Apples come into play as props in some unexpected ways, adding much to the humour. ‘Whimsical’ is another over-used term but the direction here is delightful in its economies: stockings doubling as bandages, some lovely uses of the few objects on stage and the actors' bodies and voices, all supporting the story as it plays out in the barest of sets.
The play is staged in the round so that audience members can look at each other. This immediately creates a particular type of intimacy, an odd intensity yet with a more casual, connected feel to the proceedings, a greater consciousness of the shared experience and of the actors’ physical selves. The performers are close up so you can well appreciate how Patrick Brammell as Lette alters his body language and the way he holds his face after he undergoes surgery to change his appearance, for example. The other actors are able to also fully display their mettle as they double up on characters – the changes are finely calibrated and there is no confusion as to who is who. All the performances are fine and strong.
The story of unknowing ugly ducking Lette changing his looks to improve his career prospects, although presented as artifice, does remind us that this is an increasingly common scenario in the commercial world. We now routinely accept drastic alterations to our physical selves whereas only recently replacing one’s face with another would have undermined a person’s entire sense of self. That unease still exists. Lette’s wife develops a renewed lust for him with his new face which disconcerts him but then she is faced with the problem of how to ‘orientate herself sexually’ when more and more of her husband’s doppelgangers appear on the streets. None of the characters are noble or decent human beings which is fun to start with; in fact they are all downright outrageous. Each character is self-obsessed in individual and very amusing ways.
Questions of identity and how we recognize each other are compressed in The Ugly One into the question of how we recognize ourselves. The play takes a sharp pointy stick and pokes it into the shallow values and narcissistic underpinnings of western culture where materialism and individuality run rampant – resulting, paradoxically, in loss of the individual. The hypocrisy of so much of the world’s capricious dealings with itself is laid out bare in the story line and characterization. This production is confidently and tightly done and nicely paced; the only jarring note is how the play seems to conclude very suddenly – not inappropriately regarding the story, but it felt abrupt.
Something about The Ugly One’s style and aesthetic, its intellectual concerns, its beautiful, pleasurable attention to language and rhythm mark it as European, a subtlety to which the direction is well-attuned. You get the satisfaction of seeing something original, idiosyncratic and meaty; a piece of theatre which thoroughly enjoys actually being theatre.
Melbourne Theatre Company presents
The Ugly One
by Marius von Mayenburg, translated by Maja Zade
Director Peter Evans
Venue: MTC Theatre, Lawler
Dates: 12 May – 12 June 2010
Tickets: $35.00 -$40.00 (Under 30s $25.00)
Bookings: MTC Box Office (03) 8688 0900 | mtc.com.au